Re: Why "const rect& rhs" is used here?

"Alan Carre" <>
Mon, 18 Sep 2006 07:54:46 +0700
"Jacky Luk" <> wrote in message

Hi dudes,

class rect
friend ostream& operator<<(ostream& os, const rect& rhs);
  rect (int w, int h) : _w(w), _h(h)
        { _area = _w * _h; }
  bool operator < (const rect& rhs) const <<<< this one
        { return _area < rhs._area; }
   int _w, _h, _area;
how come (const rect& rhs) is used
as far as i can see, the rhs is not mututed inside operator < and not
neccessary to be called by reference because
rhs will never be changed.And how come the operator function needs to be
declared as const (on the end of the line), as far as i can see, i also
don't see why there is a need for that... Any comments?

I thought I would throw in my 2 cents worth here because I think your
question implies something I've suspected for quite some time but never
really articulated. And that is., that the 'const' modifier, I think, is
one of the most misunderstood keywords in the C++ language.

For those of you who've never had the misfortune to participate in coding a
major project using only straight 'C' I can see how this can come about. So
let me show you what the world was like back in those days...

First we had functions, and built in types and we had something called a
"structure". There were no classes., no operators, no
constructors/destructors, no public/private or anything like that. A
structure was, or is, what has evolved into the modern concept of the
'class'. Programming was code-centric and there was no tight binding between
code and data as there is today. As well, everything was exposed. Here's an


    char pcStudentFirstName[64];
    char pcStudentLastName[64];
    int iGrades[MAX_COURSES];
    int iSkippedClasses;
    int iCurrGrade;
    BOOL bSomeBool;
    // and so on.

Or something like that (assuming you're writing a program to keep track of
students). With no user defined types things got messy very quickly; you had
to use sprintf to set strings and so on.

So, supposing you had a STUDENT_RECORD for a particular student, and you
wanted to know what their grade was for math then you'd write down:

    iMathGrade = record.iGrades[MATH];

If you had an array of records and wanted to find out the average math grade
over those records (ie. students) you'd do something like:.

for (i=0;i<num_students;i++)
    iTotalMathGrades += records[i].iGrades[MATH];

iAverageMathGrade = iTotalMathGrades / num_students;
//maybe print it out...

So here's the problem. As the structures got more complex, the algorthms for
manipulating them also got more complex. For example, our STUDENT_RECORD
structure contains an array 'iGrades', for each possible course. To
calculate the average grade over all courses you'd have to write something
like this:

iTotalGade = 0;
for (i=0;i<MAX_CLASSES;i++)
    iTotalGade += record[currStudent].iGrades[i];

iAverageGrade = iTotalGrade / MAX_CLASSES;

But of course a given student probably isn't taking every single course on
offer, so you'd probably have another list of BOOLs describing whether or
not they had taken the course. So you'd get something like this instead:

iTotalGade = 0;
iTotalCourses = 0;
for (i=0;i<MAX_CLASSES;i++)
    if (record[currStudent].bHasTakenCourse[i])
        iTotalGrade += record[currStudent].iGrades[i];

// assuming they're taking at least 1 course!
iAverageGrade = iTotalGrade / iTotalClasses;


Well you can see how this sort of thing could balloon into a great big mess
of loops and comparisons and sums. So the idea then was to generate
functions which would take the structs as arguments as follows:

// Example where struct is copied.
int AverageGrade (STUDENT_RECORD record)
    int iTotalGade = 0;
    int iTotalClasses = 0;
    for (i=0;i<MAX_CLASSES;i++)
        if (record[currStudent].bIsTakingClass[i])
            iTotalGade += record[currStudent].iGrades[i];

    return iTotalGrade / iTotalClasses;

So then in your main code you might have:

int iAverageGradeForAllStudents = 0;
for (iStudent=0;iStudent<MAX_STUDENTS;iStudent++)
    iAverageGradeForAllStudents += AverageGrade (student[iStudent]);


You can see where this is going. Pretty soon what you wind up with is a
structure and then a whole host of functions for creating, manipulating and
testing the structures. This has the immediate advantage that you can lay
down break points *in the functions* to see how the structures are being
used. So instead of someone saying

strcpy (record.pcStudentFirstName, "Johnny");

You'd have a function called SetStudentName:

void SetStudentName (STUDENT_RECORD* pRecord, const char* cszName)
    ASSERT (strlen (cszName) < 64);
    strcpy (pRecord->pcStudentFirstName, cszName);

IMPORTANT*** Notice that the *pointer* parameter cszName is passed in with
the "const" modifier. What that means is that the function SetStudentName
will not modify the contents of what cszName points to. The STUDENT_RECORD
*pointer* parameter (pRecord) however, is not being passed in with a "const"
modifier and that means that the function is allowed, even compelled, to
modify pRecord. In fact, obviously that is the purpose of this function: to
modify the contents of pRecord.

What about this function:

void GetStudentName (const STUDENT_RECORD* pcRecord,
                     char* szNameOut,
                     size_t cntBuffSize)
    szNameOut[cntBuffSizee - 1] = '\0';
    strncpy (szNameOut, pcRecord->pcName, cntBuffSize - 1);

IMPORTANT*** In this case the function will not modify what is pointed to by
pcRecord, but *will* modify what is pointed to by szNameOut.

It should be noted however, that C is very flexible and it is possible to
get around the const modifier by simple casting. So even though we passed
pcRecord in as 'const' there is no *real* gurantee that it will not be
modified. It is up to the programmer to program responsibly and to follow
the guidelines of the function's prototype. In this prototype there is an
explicit agreement between the caller and the callee something like this:

1. I, the caller, am lending you the callee 'GetStudentName' a pointer to a
   STUDENT_RECORD structure for the duration of the function call on
   condition that you, the callee, make no modifications to the data pointed
   to by pcRecord. I am further passing you a pointer to a memory block
   of size cntBuffSize starting at location szNameOut which you may
   modify in any way you see fit.

2. I, the callee, agree to make no changes whatsoever to the data pointed to
   by pcRecord and further agree that whatever data I write out during the
   function call will be within the address range [szNameOut, szNameOut +
   cntBuffSize - 1]. I shall not be held responsible if the address range
   [szNameOut, szNameOut + cntBuffSize - 1] overlaps the address range
   containing pcRecord and hereby declare that such input fall under the
   category of "undefined behaviour".

This is pretty much the standard agreement between caller and callee and one
should always keep it in mind when prototyping or examining the prototype of
a function.


So now to get the the point of all this.

Problem 1: The structure definitions must be visible to any module that uses
           the functions they refer to.
Problem 2: There's still nothing stopping someone from directly modifying
           the structures should they get a hold on one. (ie. there's still
           nothing stopping someone from writing down:
           "strcpy (record.pcStudentName, "Johnny")").

We would like to force people to use the function wrappers Get/Set student
name for instance, but how can we do that when everything is exposed?

There are several ways to deal with these (related) problems. One of the
most common solutions is to simply not publish the structures at all and
ONLY publish the function wrappers. Here is how it's done:

// Student Record.h
void* CreateStudentRecord (void);
void SetStudentName (void* hRecord, const char* pcName);
void GetStudentName (const void* hcRecord, char* pcOut, size_t nBuffSize);

and so on.

Now onto the 'C' file:

// Student Record.cpp
    char pcStudentFirstName[64];
    char pcStudentLastName[64];

    BOOL bHasTakenCourse[MAX_COURCES];
    int iGrades[MAX_COURCES];

    int iCurrGrade;
    int iSkippedClasses;
    BOOL bSomeBool;
    // etc

void* CreateStudentRecord ()
    void* hNewRecord = malloc (sizeof (STUDENT_RECORD));
    ASSERT (hNewRecord);
    return hNewRecord;

void SetStudentName (void* hRecord, const char* pcName)
    ASSERT (strlen (cszName) < 64);
    strcpy (pRecord->pcStudentFirstName, cszName);

If you are familiar with Windows programming then this should be second
nature to you. In Windows the "void*"'s are called HANDLEs. They may not be
bare pointers, but they are indices of one sort or another into some struct
somewhere in the operating system.

So that solves the problem of data hiding and many others as well. For
instance, if you decided to change the STUDENT_RECORD struct, you need not
change any code that uses the handles. The function implementations may
change but from the caller's perspective everything remains exactly as it
was. It is especially powerful in light of the fact that the function
prototypes may span multiple files, so a change to the function set could be
put in a new header file and though massive changes may be made 'behind the
scenes' wrt our STUDENT_RECORD struct most of the project sees nothing


On to C++ and the change from code-centric to data-centric view.

In C++ the concept of the struct was not only expanded but also
reinterpreted. Instead of a struct being a collection of data, in C++ a
struct was reinterpreted to include within it the functions that modify,
create, test and destroy it. The functions themselves are not members in the
same sense that are the data members, however they are refered to as
"member functions" of the struct. A new name was added "the class".
There is no essential difference between "class" and "struct" in C++. They
are one and the same except for the "public/private" default.

So, in C++ instead of saying this:

GetStudentName (&record, szNameOut, cntBuffSize);

we say this:

record.GetStudentName (char* szNameOut, cntBuffSizee);

Where we define 'GetStudentName' *inside* the structure definition along
with other members. Here are the two for comparison (I've dropped the word
"Student" from the C++ version since it's functions ONLY refer to

// Regular struct
    char pcStudentFirstName[64];
    char pcStudentLastName[64];

    BOOL bHasTakenCourse[MAX_COURCES];
    int iGrades[MAX_COURCES];

    int iCurrGrade;
    int iSkippedClasses;
    BOOL bSomeBool;
    // and so on.

// Funcs
void GetStudentName (const void* hcRecord, char* pcOut, size_t nBuffSize);
void SetStudentName (void* hRecord, const char* pcName);

//C++ struct
       char pcStudentFirstName[64];
       char pcStudentLastName[64];

       BOOL bHasTakenCourse[MAX_COURCES];
       int iGrades[MAX_COURCES];

       int iCurrGrade;
       int iSkippedClasses;
       BOOL bSomeBool;
       // and so on.

      void GetName (char* szNameOut, cntBuffSizee) const;
      void SetName (const char* szNameOut);

Notice that in GetStudentName we were able to tell the compiler that we did
not intend to modify the structure phRecord. What about the C++ version? In
the C++ version a STUDENT_RECORD pointer is in fact passed into GetName, but
it does not appear in the argument list. So how can we tell the compiler
that we don't intend to modify this structure? The answer is we put the
const modifier following the function prototype. So:

      void GetName (char* szNameOut, cntBuffSizee) const;

100% identically means this:

      void GetName (const [secret STUDENT_RECORD* pRecord],
                    char* szNameOut, cntBuffSizee);

just as in the old version (3 arguments).

What's more, pRecord actually does have a name. It's called "this". "this"
is simply a STUDENT_RECORD* just like in the old days. I think the meaning
should be fairly obvious.

Notice as well the public and private keywords. These keywords are used to
limit access to the structure's elements thereby forcing the user to go
through a function interface (if you so choose). There are advantages to
this data-centric point of view and some diasdvantages. For one thing, every
time you want to add a member to your struct, you have to recompile the
whole world again (unlike the void* solution). The advantages really don't
start to become apparent until the concept of inheritance is introduced.

But that's another story...

- Alan Carre

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